Review of Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Rees does an excellent job of taking us through Edith's amateur spy struggle and provides fascinating details of life in Germany at the end of World War II.
It's 1945, and Edith Graham is a small-town British schoolteacher who is thrilled to sign on with the British Control Commission to help get schools back up and running for the children in war-torn Germany.
Edith has a degree in German (and, more importantly and unbeknownst to her, an old connection to a hunted war criminal), and she's recruited by the Office of Strategic Services. She'll keep her cover by assisting with schools while actually trying to help locate Nazis.
Smart but inexperienced Edith quickly finds that she must negotiate the various British intelligence groups purportedly working together--some of whom are unofficial--who have vastly different goals. One faction wants to use the horrifying knowledge of Nazi doctors who enacted abuse and torture upon Jews during the war; others want due process for these criminals; still others want to assassinate the monsters without delay. Edith must constantly determine who to trust as she seeks the truth and tries to ensure that justice is served.
Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook alludes to the way Edith includes coded intelligence within her letters' recipes and chatty notes. Although I wasn't completely clear on how the clever messaging worked at a level of detail that would have been useful, it was easy to suspend my disbelief because I loved it so much. But even more interesting to me were the detailed snapshots Rees offers into the foods of the place and time--for struggling regular Germans as compared to the privileged, occupying British and Americans. The scarcity of supplies and necessary improvisations, as well as black-market riches, together served as a vivid backdrop for the story.
The details Rees provides of this confused time in the world are wonderful: the complicated workings of different groups' postwar efforts; the bombed--or jarringly lush and untouched--settings; the creative, sometimes alarming dietary options; and the clothes and fashion. It's clear that she thoroughly researched all of these aspects.
There are some implausibly long, expository soliloquys that explain the machinations of the Nazis or offer background on the politics of the American and British postwar factions. Toward the end of the book, I stumbled at some awkward scene transitions, and there is a late, abrupt point of view shift. I sometimes confused the various British men attempting to serve as puppet masters, but I raced to the conclusion of the increasingly interconnected, complex story lines because I couldn't wait to find out what happened to the key players.
Rees does an excellent job of taking us through Edith's amateur spy struggle to determine what information to entrust to whom, how to extract the details she needs from unsuspecting sources, and how to stay alive once she's embroiled in a situation that turns out to be far more dangerous than she could have imagined.
What did you think?
I found the author's note about her inspiration for the book's hook and story line really interesting.
Rees has written other books that look fantastic: Pirates! (obviously yes to this one), Witch Child (again, yes), and its sequel, Sorceress (yes).
I first mentioned this book in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 9/22/20 Edition.